By Ann Silverthorn
Many Academy Awards in the 1980s went to movies that explored non-traditional subjects, indicating a move toward inclusiveness as filmmakers began to explore dysfunction, disabilities, and cultural issues. Here are some notable Academy Award winners from the 1980s that are worth watching.
To start out the decade, the 1980 Academy Awards bestowed the Best Picture honor on a movie that set the spotlight on divorce and its effect on children. Kramer vs. Kramer stars Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, who earned Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. This film upends the age-old scenario in that the mother is the one to leave home. Then, just as the father starts to feel comfortable in his expanded role, the mother returns, while at the center of the turmoil sits a young boy.
Another 1980 noteworthy Oscar winner is the German production, The Tin Drum, which won Best Foreign Language Film. In this film, a young boy in the chaos of the rise of Nazism takes matters into his own hands and, in protest, decides to stop growing at the age of three.
A devastatingly dysfunctional family drama won Best Picture in 1981. Ordinary People features Mary Tyler Moore in a role quite different from those she had played in the past. Her repressed character is morose, she’s lost a son, and her surviving son is a disappointment. Robert Redford won Best Director for this film.
Moving away from a family subject, Best Picture in 1982 went to Chariots of Fire, based on the true story of two British runners competing in the 1924 Olympic Games. It won four other Oscars, including Best Music for the original score by Vangelis.
It was back to the family front at the 1984 Academy Awards as Terms of Endearment took home the Best Picture award. Shirley MacLaine won Best Actress and Jack Nicholson won Best Supporting Actor. This mother/daughter drama, which spans 30 years, was adapted from Larry McMurtry’s 1975 novel of the same name. McMurtry also wrote The Last Picture Show (1971) and Lonesome Dove (1989), which were adapted into a movie and television series, respectively.
Another 1984 winner worth mentioning is Yentl, which tests the gender barrier as a young Jewish woman poses as a boy in order to learn more about her faith. Winning the Oscar for Best Original Song Score, Yentl stars Barbra Streisand singing several of the memorable songs in the film, including, “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”. Streisand also challenged gender norms by serving as director.
Another winner worth watching from 1985 is The Times of Harvey Milk, which won Best Documentary. It is based on San Francisco city council member Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay member of the council and fought for gay rights. The story would later be dramatized in Milk, which won its own Oscar in 2009 for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor for Sean Penn.
In 1986, neither Meryl Streep nor her co-star Robert Redford won Oscars for their work in Out of Africa, but the film won Best Picture and six other awards, including Best Director for Sydney Pollack. Streep plays a woman who wants a better life and finds herself in Africa, miserably married to a womanizer. That is where Robert Redford’s character steps in and things start to get complicated.
The 1987 Academy Awards leaped lightyears forward in disability awareness with Marlee Matlin’s Best Actress win for her role as a troubled deaf school custodian in Children of a Lesser God. Matlin, who is deaf, has enjoyed a lengthy acting career since, mainly in television shows such as The West Wing.
A significant shift occurred in 1988 when Best Picture went to a movie about China’s Ching Dynasty, The Last Emperor. It became the third-most honored film in Academy history, after Ben-Hur (1959) and West Side Story (1961). In all, The Last Emperor won nine awards. Peter O’Toole stars, among a representative Asian cast.
And last, in 1989, years before the devastating figures emerged showing the rise of autism diagnoses, Rain Man won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Dustin Hoffman, who plays an autistic savant, won Best Actor, while Tom Cruise plays his brother, an unwilling escort on a cross-country journey who learns something about slowing down.